Has Open-Source sold out?
The new GNU
At the time, the Unix operating system was becoming widely used, partly because its owner, the giant US phone company AT&T, allowed universities access to the code. But although companies could license it, Unix was expensive, so people started to develop lookalikes, including the small education-oriented Minix. Richard Stallman, working at MIT in Boston, saw that what had been free code was being closed off and commercialised, and he didn’t like it. So, in 1983, he announced that he was going to develop his own Unixalike, and it would be free.
“Starting this Thanksgiving, I am going to write a complete Unix-compatible software system called GNU (for GNU’s Not Unix), and give it away free to everyone who can use it. Contributions of time, money, programs and equipment are greatly needed,” Stallman wrote, adding: “I consider that the golden rule requires that if I like a program I must share it with other people who like it. I cannot, in good conscience, sign a non-disclosure agreement or a software licence agreement.”
Being a prodigious programmer, Stallman sat down and wrote a lot of code including GNU C, a debugger, and a new version of his Emacs programmable editor. In 1985, he set up the Free Software Foundation, a tax-exempt charity, to run the project, and then he created “copyleft” – the GNU General Public License (GPL) – to make sure that free code stayed free. When Linus Torvalds came along and started writing a Minix-like operating system (“just a hobby, won’t be big and professional like GNU”) in 1991, he used GNU tools, and released it under Stallman’s GPL.
It was Stallman who gave the free software movement its ethical underpinning. As he said: “The principal goal of GNU was to be free software. Even if GNU had no technical advantage over Unix, it would have a social advantage, allowing users to cooperate, and an ethical advantage, respecting the user’s freedom.”
On the opposite coast, Bill Joy and others at the University of California were developing another version of Unix, which became known as BSD (for Berkeley Software Distribution). This started with AT&T code, but as licensing became more expensive, the programmers replaced AT&T code with BSD code. When BSD Inc started distributing the operating system in 1992, AT&T sued for copyright infringement.
Unlike GNU/Linux, BSD is distributed under a permissive licence that allows commercial companies to use, change and sell it without being obliged to give anything back to the community. One example was NeXT’s use of BSD as the basis for NextStep, which Apple purchased and turned into Mac OS X. Simon Phipps, Sun’s chief open-source officer, claims: “Apple is exactly the reason why you need a copyleft licence.”
The ethical argument was further undermined by Eric Raymond, a Free Software Foundation stalwart who fell out with Stallman. He felt that most companies wouldn’t choose free software for the ethics, but they would adopt it for being good software. In 1998, with Bruce Perens, Raymond set up the Open Source Initiative to promote it as “open source” rather than “free”.
As Raymond explained, there are people who say that “commercial software is theft and hoarding. I write free software to end this evil.” But there are others who might say: “Commercial software is okay, I just use and/or write open-source software because I like it better.” This strategy was a huge success, but it downplayed both meanings of free: as in “free speech” and “free beer”.